Monday, March 3, 2008

You can learn a lot from Beethoven

I started learning Beethoven's Sonata in C Minor Opus 13 ("Pathetique") in the spring of 1998. I had my first post college apartment in Bangor Maine, my first job as an audiologist, my first piano and lots of time. Mind you, I am an average piano player trained to read music and enjoy what I play. I am not "classically trained" by any stretch of the imagination. Beethoven is technically out of my league and I hear his bones rattling in the grave as I massacre his beautiful creation. I have loved every minute of it. The sad reality is that it's been ten years and I only play two and a half pages of the first movement. I got that far many years ago and then just stopped making any progress. Laziness I guess. The piece got harder after that section, I was comfortable with what I already learned and was getting good at it. I didn't have to think much about the music anymore when I sat down to play. Ten years, two and a half pages. Boring.

Yesterday I finally moved forward. Baby steps. I play the right hand alone. I play the left hand alone. When I don't recognize a note that sits way above or below the staff I squint my eyes and move my face toward the sheet music as if poor vision is the reason for not being able to play these notes. I talk to myself as I play and make a mess of things when I put both hands together. So, I start over. Right hand alone. Left hand alone. Repeat. Repeat.

In the process of this methodical one hand at a time practice I made a surprising discovery. On the last page of the first movement a theme from the first page is repeated. I already know this part, hooray! Happy to get to a familiar part I relaxed a little as my right hand hit the notes I'd been striking for the past ten years. Wait a minute. Something wasn't quite right. I looked at the note on the page, looked at the key signature, looked at what I played. It didn't compute. For the first time in ten years I realized I play this section with two wrong notes. It's a tiny mistake, but it does actually make a qualitative difference in the sound. Without the focus of learning the new section I never would have noticed this mistake. Stuck in my way for ten years, sure of myself, too unfocused to notice the simple mistake I'd been making all this time.

I'm well aware that I'll never be able to play this piece like the professionals. They are superhuman piano deities and I am a mere mortal with other interests like hiking, cookie eating and sleeping. I could let that stop me from trying at all but then I would miss out on the excitement of making progress. There is youthful exuberance in taking baby steps toward a goal and eventually reaching it. Learning to be patient with the process and persistent in your practice are lessons that can be applied to any aspect of life. Besides that, by becoming intimately involved with this music my appreciation for it has deepened immeasurably. I feel an emotional tie to Beethoven himself as I express the best I can with my own fingers the passionate music he created when he was only 27 years old.

Tomorrow I have a meeting scheduled with my supervisor. I plan to tell her that I will not renew my contract in July. I have no idea what I'm going to do next. Truthfully, it would be easier to continue as an audiologist. I'm sure of myself, stuck in my ways, I don't have to focus much attention on my job. It's like playing the first two and a half pages of Beethoven's Sonata Pathetique over and over for ten years. It's time to turn the page and start learning the next section of my life's opus.

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